Pre-History and Subsistence Strategies

An Introduction to Eis

As a companion to my On Worldbuilding series, I will also be working through my process step by step and building a world. I want to do this to help illustrate how the topics I’m writing about can be applied to actual worldbuilding. Once in a while I’ll also be throwing in some short fiction set in this world to show you how I take what I’ve developed and apply it to a final product.

 I have three goals for this world I’m going to be building. First I want to be able to include just about anything I need to help tie into the On Worldbuilding articles. Secondly, I want to be able to write these short companion stories. My tertiary goal will be to develop this into a setting for a Pathfinder campaign for me and my friends. I feel like between catering to writers and DMs, I will be covering the use-cases of most worldbuilders. Having goals is an important part of the process, because building your world to fit your final product is much easier than building a world and then trying to make it work in a specific medium. This isn’t to say you can’t create trans-media settings, adapt between mediums, or just build a world for yourself to enjoy; but, if you do have to make adaptations you may find that your vision for the final product and your vision for the world are at odds with each other. Think about how few successful video game adaptations there are, or how many book-to-movie adaptations fail to even tell the same story. This is because some worlds just work better in certain mediums. So make goals for your setting and keep them in mind as you develop your worlds.

To fulfill all of my goals for the setting I’ll be building, I will be making a high magic world with inspirations from fairytales and myths. I will maintain a mostly Euro-centric design, at least for my initial planning stages, to give everything a cohesive aesthetic and familiar vibe. However, I think the principles I will discuss can still be applicable to other settings, even if you plan to aim for something more constrained or more outlandish. I’ve also chosen to start with my scope constrained to a single continent. We can give some thought to the wider world, like other continents and alternate realms, but we’ll do so at a later date when the core of the setting is more firmly established.

In order to give my project a name, I’ve decided to call the world Eis. Your world doesn’t have to have a name from the beginning, but I like to have one even if I might change it later. As I will discuss later in the series, naming things is highly arbitrary and subject to preference for how you want your world to be perceived. Eis is short, which I find subjectively very fitting for world names; and it’s suitably “neutral” in the sense that I can imagine this word being from all sorts of different cultures.

Before I begin I’d like to say that this is my second crack at this. After figuring out a few thousand words of this article and all of my cultures, I decided that I’d deviated too far from my original plan and had to scrap most of what I’d done to that point. This is an ordinary part of worldbuilding. Some days you’ll be tired or hungry or just drained and wont bring 100% of your creative energies. Don’t be afraid to set things aside when you feel frustrated or unhappy with what you’ve made. You can always keep your notes and reintroduce parts of those scrapped ideas later. That’s exactly what I plan to do with my first attempt at my cultures, I’ve got them all saved in a document where I can go look at them again later if I’m lacking inspiration.

Developing My First Cultures

I would like to have at least one culture practicing each of the subsistence strategies I covered in Part 1: Subsistence. In a full sized continent like mine it makes sense that you would have each of these strategies present in some form, assuming the technologies have actually developed in that world, and that agriculture hasn’t asserted dominance everywhere yet. Keeping this in mind I’m going to invent six proto-cultures that I will then develop into my “present day” Eisian cultures. I’m going to start with two Hunter-Gatherer cultures, two Pastoralist nomad cultures, one proto-culture dedicated to Horticulture, and one civilization that has recently developed Agriculture. Much later on, in a future part of the series I’ll add one culture on the verge of Industrialism to round out the list.

Because I want the tone of this setting to be very familiar to those used to fantasy, I’m going to stick to fairly conventional choices for what fantasy races to include in my “core” set of common species. I’m also going to keep the cultural inspirations for these proto-cultures very straightforward. No mixing and matching of real world cultures just yet.

To give a rough idea of how these cultures will be arranged on my continent, I can just look at the requirements their subsistence strategies impose on them. The hunter-gatherer communities will be most widespread in the temperate regions of the world, occupying small villages of between 70-150 people. The shepherds will live in places like mountains, steppes and tundras where no one else can sustain themselves, but where herd animals can graze all or part of the year. The horticulturalists will live in a fertile, isolated place like a jungle where they can maintain their practices without harsh competition over land-rights. And the agricultural society will (at first) be restricted to highly fertile river valleys and floodplains.

Temperate Hunter-Gatherers

First, I want a group of human hunter-gatherers. As discussed before, humans are an important part of building a sense of familiarity with a setting. In my setting I want humans to be widespread so that anywhere I take my stories humans can be present if I, or my eventual players want them to be. This group of humans will be based on the continental Celtic peoples, like the Gauls, the Galatians and the Belgae. These people, related to the Irish and Scottish Gaels, had a beautiful style of complex metal and stonework involving spirals and organic shapes. Unfortunately, their languages died out in Europe following the numerous Roman conquests of their people. Using these people as the basis for this proto-culture will give it an antiquated but distinctly European feel. Because these are hunter-gatherers, they likely aren’t doing much metal work and they aren’t building monoliths yet, but we can still represent their style in other ways.

These people live in small semi-permanent communities of thatched mud huts, or in gatherings of tents pitched in favorable areas. They gather what they can from the surrounding forest and move when things become too scarce. In established villages there will be numerous wood carvings and smaller stone steles commemorating good events, lost loved ones, acts of worship and so on. Perhaps some of these tribes practice ritual tattooing in the same organic style; a practice based on the woad face-painting of the Celts. Copper and silver jewelry are marks of high status, as none but the best warriors, hunters or chieftains can afford them. Life is fairly simple for these people, and they are mostly peaceful. But bad years can easily push tribes into conflict over small stretches of fertile land. Over time, their tribal bonds will completely eclipse the wider shared culture and these people will begin to fracture into many smaller sub-cultures.

An example of Continental Celtic decorative metalwork.
BastienM, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This particular group comes from an area of mostly flat, vast woodlands, broken by river valleys of even denser forests that come down from the mountains. In the lowlands, as it gets hotter, the woodlands give way to open meadows and smaller forests that follow the winding of the rivers. Living in an environment like this, they will be familiar with all kinds of common animals like wolves, hawks, deer, rabbits, etc. But, they likely aren’t so familiar with aquatic creatures other than whatever lives in the rivers, or any of the colder weather beasts like moose or grizzly bears. All sorts of fruits and berries will likely grow around the rivers and in the woods, and the meadows will likely be home to all sorts of herbs and edible flowers and grasses. These may seem like incidental details, but these will all be important factors later when we are making choices about the language, religion, culture and food of these people’s descendants.

These people will be characterized by lightly tanned skin, thick and coarse brown to straw-blonde hair, and darkly colored eyes. I will call them the Nyktii. This is a compound of the Greek word nyx and the Latin genitive plural ending with double “i”s; as in filii “of the sons”. Most of our knowledge of the Celts comes to us from Latin and Greek sources, so most of the names we have for them come to us through these lenses. Nyx means night, but I’ve chosen it here entirely for the purpose of aesthetics. The word is immediately non-English without being overly difficult to pronounce, and it will stick out in blocks of text. As we further develop the world, the Nyktii will be replaced by numerous daughter cultures. But all of them will have a foundation that starts here.

Sub-Arctic Hunter-Gatherers

My second proto-culture of hunter-gatherers will be made up of elves. Elves are, for lack of a better term, a very generic option. Which is good for my purposes as it establishes expectations for the rest of the world very well. But we can still do some work to make them a little more interesting while also fulfilling the goals of my world. I’m going to borrow these elves’ cultural cues from Scandinavian and Old Norse sources. This will hearken back to their mythological roots, and is well within the wheelhouse of expected elven cultures. However, I’m also going to bring in elements traditional of the English faerie-lore much like Tolkien did for his elves, but to different effect. Elves of this culture almost always live with a powerful local forest spirit who watches over them in exchange for offerings. These spirits make the land more bountiful, allowing these elven communities to be much larger than human communities in similar climates. Depending on the spirit the elves have made their King or Queen, their diet may vary, as will what resources are available to them. But the basics of the culture will remain roughly the same, for now.

Thanks to their divine benefactors these elves can inhabit less temperate environments that are not favorable to human habitation. The result is that they have a wider range, but are generally less mobile, and tend to inhabit a single spot without moving for centuries at a time. Elves therefore do build permanent dwellings, often of wood, but just as often out of stone, or dug into the earth. These elves may have elaborate paintings and carvings decorating their homes that depict scenes of nature and animals, or venerations to their Lord. However, the specifics of their living situation will depend on what types of magic their Lord has at their disposal.

These people will live in the colder parts of the continent, and in some places, share the same temperate zones as the humans. Sharing the same range may put them in direct conflict for resources if the humans have a rough season, and so there may be frequent conflicts where the two cultures overlap. The elves prefer to inhabit temperate and boreal forests, or seasonally frozen glacial rivers and lakes. These fresh-water lakes would be surrounded by heath which eventually gives way to open tundra. They will be more familiar with sub-arctic plants and animals like bears, elk, botcats, ermines and salmon, than their human counterparts, but may not have the same generalist knowledge of plants and animals, as their Lords discourage unfavorable growth in their lands.

Visually these elves are by the books; pale skinned with white, blonde or red hair, and tall with pointed ears. Their eyes will be blue, gray or violet. I’m going to call these people the Hulvre, which is a mash-up of the Scandinavian word huldra and the word elves. I love the -lvr- cluster there in the middle, it’s very fun to say. And, also importantly, it isn’t too similar to the other culture name I’ve already chosen. At each step where I add a new name, especially this early, I want to make them look distinct when read and when said aloud, because this will help people keep them separate in their heads as they learn about my setting later. I can already see that both of my cultures have six letter names, and I’ll make sure to switch it up to something longer or shorter next time to keep the profile of the words distinct enough as well.

Arid Pastoral Nomads

My first pastoral culture is going to be another set of humans. But, why add more humans when we already have a human proto-culture? It’s because I don’t want my races to be mono-cultures. I want them to be diverse to help sell the authenticity of my world. So I want to make sure that there are different proto-cultures to represent different human ancestries when I get to the point of developing my modern cultures.

As pastoralists these people will live a nomadic lifestyle in the arid parts of my world, herding their flock from place to place, settling only when the dry summer forces them to shelter at a water source like a large lake or a pre-dug well. Numerous real world peoples lived just like this for thousands of years prior to the spread of agriculture, but the majority of them that are well recorded lived in the dry parts of north Africa and east Asia. This proto-culture will be based on the Semitic peoples, a group that included speakers of Hebrew, Aramaic and pre-Islamic Arabic. Even though this doesn’t conform entirely to my stated goal of making a European inspired setting, Christianity’s roots in Judaism mean that Semitic cultures are still visually recognizable to most Westerners due to their familiarity with Biblical stories set in these communities.

I want these pastoralists to live in the hot and dry parts of my world: in savannas, low deserts, and rocky hills and mountain-sides around their homeland. Given these restrictions, I think these people will primarily herd goats, with oxen being kept as pack animals and as a secondary source of meat and milk. Every few weeks these people will load up their oxen and drive their flock of goats to a new pasture. Once a year, in the summer, they will hunker down in a settlement near a well or lake where some part of the tribe stays year round with the children and elderly. This cycle defines the life of these people, and everyone works toward the shared goal of maintaining the flock by doing their part.

Priit Kallas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Goats and oxen will be a core part of these people’s cultural practices and beliefs. If they have gods, it’s likely that some of them will be in-part or entirely animal-like. It’s also likely that they view these animals as different from others, as more intelligent or spiritually similar to humans. This is similar to how modern people place pet animals “above” the general animal kingdom when it comes to assigning empathy. Seasons and time will also be vitally important to these people, and they may develop some sort of calendar long before anyone else, simply to track the coming and going of the dry seasons. If their women remain at the homestead year round, and the men are always on the trail, then it is likely they will have a marriage or courtship season when dozens of weddings happen in the span of a few weeks leading up to the men’s departure. Some of these tribes will form matriarchal societies. In these situations the eldest woman from the family that “owns” the land will hold cultural authority over the whole settlement. These groups are usually small enough that “town halls” or similar gatherings of all the adults to talk through a difficult issue faced by the community are common, but the matriarch may still wield the right to overrule the community for their own benefit. Some of the descendant cultures will certainly have these features, but none of them will preserve all of these features exactly like this, since each tribe will have its own specific practices and policies.

Living in such a dry environment means that the biodiversity around these people is limited. They likely have very few large predators to contend with (perhaps one or two species), and very little in the way of wild fruits or vegetables. For this reason, animals like their own goats and oxen, but also lions, hawks, lizards, snakes, hawks and buzzards, are part of a very small group of animals these people would be familiar with. These types of dryland animals will crop up very frequently in their mythology because there just isn’t much else going on in the desert than the endless playing-out of this very small food-web.

These people will be identifiable by their dark brown to almost reddish-black skin, to help them stay unburnt while wandering around the desert all the time. Older people will have leathery, sun-cracked skin regardless of their melanin levels, just from spending so much time in the sun. They will have curly black or brown hair and dark eyes, similar to the other human group, the Nyktii, but their facial features will be wider and more pronounced, especially around the mouth, nose and jawline. Let’s call them the Orochites, or simply the Oroch. I’ve derived this term by corrupting the word auroch, the feral ancestor to the modern cow, and giving it the -ite ending that appears appended to the various biblical tribes, like the Semites, the Canaanites, the Israelites and the Hamites. The ch in Oroch should be pronounced like in Hebrew words like challah and chanukah, that is to say as the uvular fricative [χ], an h formed higher in the throat so that your uvula vibrates. This will help give the word the proper non-English feel.

Boreal Pastoral Nomads

My second pastoralist proto-culture will be my dwarves. Dwarves will round out my generic fantasy fare and firmly plant my setting in the conventional high-fantasy aesthetic. Just like with the elves, my choice to include dwarves in the setting gives my audience a clear sign of my intentions for the general and tone of my world. Like my other pastoral cultures, the dwarves will necessarily be nomads, bringing their flock here and there to keep them fed. To make them different, the dwarves will instead inhabit my sub-arctic and boreal climates, where resources are scarce due to the snow and the cold choking out most of the growth. Dwarves will be perennial nomads, constantly moving, and never settling for longer than a few days or weeks at most. My dwarven proto-culture will be based on the Cossacks, a group of independent and semi-democratic people who lived along the banks of the Ural and Don rivers in what is now Russia beginning sometime in the 1400’s. The Cossacks were known as fierce warriors who stood toe to toe with several Empires despite lacking the same resources and manpower. Even when finally brought under the control of the Russian empire, they led rebellions for independence and tried to abolish slavery. Cossacks traditionally had a highly identifiable manner of dress; a long sturdy wool coat that falls to the shins and a tall cylindrical sheepskin hat they call a papakha or papaha.

The tall black hat on the man to the left-of-center is a type of papakha.
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, Ilya Repin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These dwarves will keep a special breed of giant wooly sheep that is uniquely adapted to their cold-weather climate. These sheep need a lot of nutrition to keep their enormous size, and so they can quickly strip the land to the roots if not grazed properly. The dwarves will maintain a meritocratic and semi-democratic society which values freedom and self-reliance. They will likely be resistant to ideas like conquest and expansionism, meaning that the dwarven clans are more likely to attempt diplomacy over warfare when solving conflicts. Of course armed disputes will still occur, but dwarves likely have the most developed systems for raising and resolving political disputes out of all of the proto-cultures. However, in keeping with the common fantasy trope, young dwarves within the group experience harsh treatment by elders and an incredible pressure to both conform and provide for the clan according to ancient and often inscrutable cultural laws.

Dwarves living in the boreal regions may frequently come into contact with the elves who live there as well. The Hulvre and these dwarves likely strive to keep their distance from one another, as the Hulvre’s Lords keep their lands very well protected, and don’t take kindly to the dwarves’ ravenous flocks destroying the carefully balanced ecosystem. When the dwarves are forced by bad weather or luck to delve into the Hulvre’s lands, this is likely cause for war. The resulting conflicts have embittered dwarves and elves to one another, especially in border communities where such interactions are more common.

My dwarves will have fair complexions, and brown, black or red hair. They will be short and stocky just as we expect, having more muscle mass than humans and a different bone structure as well. As for their beards, perhaps there is a pervasive cultural taboo against shaving, as there has been in many real world cultures. I will call these dwarves the Dverrack, a portmanteau of dvergr, one of the old Norse words for dwarf, and Cossack. This word has all of the “harshness” I want from a dwarven word, with few vowels and many clustered consonants. I especially like the dv from the Norse borrow-word, which is also sort of evocative of the word dwarf, as they ultimately share the same root.

Tropical Horticulturalists

For my sole proto-culture that practices slash-and-burn horticulture, I’ve chosen elves again. Elves’ natural affinity for nature makes them perfect for this style of subsistence which is so reliant on the rejuvenation of the land to provide for them. As a horticultural society, these elves will live in small static villages surrounded by a rotation of land plots in various degrees of growth and burn. Because I’ve already established that my other elves have a deep symbiotic relationship with a local spirit, I’d like to do the same here. But, instead of a land spirit, these elves organize themselves around a spirit of fire, who fulfills much the same role as the Lords of the Hulvre, but who does so by scouring the land with fire instead of magically nourishing it. The aesthetics of this culture will be inspired by Carthage and other Phoenician city-states like Tyre. This means they will wear light thin clothing and live in permanent stone and mud-brick dwellings along the shores of whatever sea or ocean they can find. Because they have such ready access to the sea, this race will do a lot of fishing to supplement their harvests. They will be the earliest ship-builders and sailors, and the first to begin to inhabit the distant islands of the world.

A proposed reconstruction of Punic Carthage.
damian entwistle, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Without a nurturing Lord spirit, these elves will be forced to live in naturally fertile environments; namely, jungles and tropical islands. In the real world the tropics lie between 23.4°S and 23.4°N of the equator, but slight differences in the orbit of your planet, or major differences in what even constitutes a “planet” in your setting could mean that this band is larger, smaller, or not a consideration at all. In this world I haven’t decided exactly what I want yet, but I know I probably don’t want a very earth-like cosmology, so I will assume that these people live in the hottest and most humid part of the world, whatever that looks like in the end.

Living in a jungle environment and near the water means that these people will be very familiar with both the aquatic life and jungle flora of the region. They may however be less familiar with the fauna, as their reliance on fishing will lessen their need to hunt. They will still be intimately familiar with the large predators of their environments; tigers, panthers, lions, snakes, and in the water sharks, and whatever other fantasy beasts we mix in with them will all be significant threats to these people in their day to day lives within the jungle. They may learn to fear these creatures, or they may learn to venerate them.

These elves will have brick-red to pink skin, a slightly different sort of pigment than human skin gives them a little fantasy twist that is also a nod to their fire-y survival strategy. They will keep the same hair and eye colors as the Hulvre; white, blonde or red hair, and blue, gray or violet eyes. This will help keep the two races cohesive while allowing them to be visually distinct. As for the name: the word Carthage comes to us through Latin Carthago, which was borrowed from Punic quart khadash, which simply meant “new town”. I can take these old roots and crunch them down into Qardagh. Q has a pedigree in English as a very “foreign” seeming letter, especially when it appears without u, which is obligate in English words that do use this letter. This name will give these elves an exotic feeling in this otherwise very familiar setting. So, these will be the Qardaghi.

Agricultural Empire

For my final proto-culture I’m reaching just outside of Tolkienian fantasy and into the nearby realm of European mythology. The culture that discovers agriculture first in this world will be a race of giants. In this case I don’t mean dumb hill-dwelling monsters, but something more akin to the giants of Welsh and Irish mythology. In these traditions, giants were often very wise and somewhat godlike creatures. They were often truly enormous, Bendigeidfran was a giant King of Britain in the Mabinogion who was mistaken for a walking mountain as he waded across the sea to Ireland. My giants won’t be that large, in fact they’ll be only a few feet taller than humans, and very human-like in appearance. But, giants will be a very contentious and imperialistic force that views the world as full of lesser creatures, fit only for eating, slaying or domestication. The giants’ will for domination will set the scene for the wars and conflict that carry my world’s cultures into their modern forms. To keep in line with these inspirations, I’m going to base giantish culture on their depictions as kings, knights and courtiers in Welsh and other British mythologies. This will paint them in the light of an Arthurian fantasy, which matches the regal air I want my giants to have on the surface.

King Arthur, Charles Ernest Butler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These giants will have to live in a fertile river valley at first, as all agricultural societies generally did at first on earth. They will likely be on the cusp of the tropical regions near an inland sea, where the weather and seasons are stabilized by the large body of water, and fertility is maintained by the yearly flooding of the riverbanks. When exactly they plant a crop will be determined by either the rainy season, or the flood season depending on whether they actually see a rainy season in their climate. I will say that the annual snowmelt of distant glaciers many thousands of miles away leads to spring-time flooding of the riverbanks. In early summer, when the floods are over, the planting season begins, and harvest then occurs sometime in autumn. There may be another attempt to replant and harvest before the floods come, but this will depend on how tightly they can fit the two growing seasons together. They may even have staggered summer and autumn fields, so that the winter harvest can be in the ground before the harvest of the summer crop.

These guys will be growing barley, wheat and oats at first in large mono-cultured fields. If they do manage to take in two crops in a year, the more nutritionally demanding wheat will probably be the first harvest, and the less demanding barley can be sown as an autumn crop if proper fertilizer is provided. The need for fertilizer may suggest that the giants have domesticated animals as well. I’ll say the giants have domesticated draft horses. Though they aren’t really rideable yet, especially for such large people, they will provide a source of much needed labor in the fields, dragging heavy plows to turn the earth. I will also say that giants are the first to domesticate cats, to keep their grainstores free of mice and rats.

The giants will be light gray skinned, like stone statues, or like the depictions of Norse giants with gray or ice-pale skin. Their hair will range from black to white, but won’t bear any coloring otherwise, and their eyes may be blue, black or gray. I will call these the Llergeidan, a mixture of the Welsh names Llyr and Bendigeidfran. The initial double ll isn’t common in most Latin script languages, so it stands out and gives a distinct appearance to the word without making it harder to pronounce.

In the next part, I will take these proto-cultures and turn them into the modern cultures of this continent. This will involve working out the major conflicts and technological developments that these people will be subject to for the next few millennia. But, we’ll do so by working out how we want our final races to look, and then cutting in our history to fit whatever narrative we need. Once I’ve finished that work, I’ll show you the first piece of fiction I’ve written for this world, and you’ll be able to see how I take these ideas established here and follow through to implement them in a narrative.

Next: The World of Eis: Modern Cultures